Both of the books I'm recommending today are each, in their own ways, about cold cases.
After all, what could be colder than the mysteries surrounding the life of that pre-eminent Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie? Christie, by some calculations, is the second best-selling author of all time (beaten by a hair by Shakespeare). She was a resolutely private person and, so, has teased the legion of biographers who have been chipping away at her sphinxlike silence ever since she died in 1976.
Surely, by now, you'd think there's nothing more to discover. But as every dedicated mystery reader knows, a gifted investigator sees what most of us mere mortals are blind to.
Christie biographer Laura Thompson not only sees Christie's life more lucidly, but she's had a lot more material to peruse — letters and scraps of personal writing tucked into drawers and suitcases at Christie's beloved house in Devon. Thompson was also able to interview family members, including Christie's daughter Rosalind, before her death.
The resulting triumph of a biography, called Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life, was published a little over a decade ago in England, but is just now coming out here with a wobbly tie-in to the centenary of the completion of Christie's first novel, The Mysterious Affair At Styles. That's the book that ushered Hercule Poirot into the world. Whatever the excuse, it's wonderful to finally have Thompson's deep dive into Christie easily available.
No other biography of Christie that I've read so powerfully summons up the atmosphere of Christie's own writing: that singular blend of menace and the mundane. As every biographer must, Thompson takes readers through the familiar milestones of Christie's life: her idyllic childhood; her first marriage to a penniless aviator and cad; her notorious 11-day disappearance in 1926; and her happy second marriage to archaeologist Max Mallowan.
But because Thompson is such a fine close reader of Christie's deceptively dreamy personality and domestic world, she catches things others have missed — for instance, the fact that Christie's mother Clara was "probably, the love of [her] life." Thompson also digs into Christie's puzzling contradictions: her strange coldness to her own daughter; her staunch anti-feminist belief that "men have much better brains than women."
And Thompson appreciates what she calls Christie's "ordinary magic" as a writer: her innate grasp of human nature and her "natural quality of translucency" — the plainness of style that accounts for why Christie is still critically underrated.
Christie was an obsessive about murder — after all, she wrote 80 novels, most of them murder mysteries. Journalist Michelle McNamara was also obsessed with murder — specifically, researching and trying to crack cold cases. She created a popular website called True Crime Diary and, at the time of her sudden death in her sleep at the age of 46, McNamara was writing a book about her quest to track down the predator she dubbed "The Golden State Killer."
Beginning in the 1970s, this monster perpetrated 50 sexual assaults in Northern California and then moved south, where he committed 10 murders. In 1986, his sadistic spree mysteriously came to an end, though one of his victims swears she received a taunting phone call from him in 2001.
The book McNamara was midway through writing at her death has been completed by colleagues familiar with her research. It's called I'll Be Gone In The Dark, which is a boast the Golden State Killer made to one of his victims who survived.
McNamara and her collaborators have written an un-put-down-able account of the crimes, the faded suburban California world where they took place and the dogged police detectives who remain haunted by the case.
Just as powerful is McNamara's investigation into her own obsession with The Golden State Killer. Her voice throughout is unfailingly smart and wry. She says at one point: "Sure, I'd love to clear the rot. I'm envious, for example, of people obsessed with the Civil War, which brims with details but is contained. In my case, the monsters recede but never vanish."
McNamara was married to the comedian and actor Patton Oswalt, who's written a poignant "Afterword" to this book, where he compares his late wife to Hercule Poirot: "I was married to a crime fighter for a decade [Oswalt says] — an emphatically for-real, methodical, 'little grey cells,' Great Brain-type crime fighter."
That's the hook, of course, of both Christie's mysteries and McNamara's true crime reportage: that reason will triumph over chaos and evil. And, sometimes, even in real life, it does.